This week’s Inspiration: The sonic universe of Taylor Kuffner

Last week, renowned gallerist Mr Tagore told me about his hopes to install a sonic sculpture on the Singapore MRT (Train System), and explained how life, death and redemption can be captured on canvas. This week he introduced me to Taylor Kuffner, the artist whose sculpture has had reverberations around Singapore, to discuss frog calls, xylophone robots, and the primal effects of sound… My original conversations with Taylor and Sundaram are published in an article in Artitute, and are also presented below so I can share the experience with you…

Kuffner_Installation
Taylor Kuffner, The Gamelatron Jalan Jiwo, 2012, Kinetic Sculpture Installation

Nicola Anthony: During visits to Sundaram Tagore gallery, the air is filled with the chiming of Indonesian gamelan instruments, and the kinetic installation creates a powerful performance. Taylor, you must have had some inspirational experiences during your residency in Indonesia—any you could tell us about to give an insight into your life there?

Taylor Kuffner: I had an amazing time in Indonesia. I was fully immersed in village life in Sewon, Bantul, just south of Yogyakarta in Java and Kutuh Kajah, just north of Ubud in Bali. My fondest memories really are the simple things. I remember riding my bicycle across the sawah (rice fields) and taking breaks in a gubuk (shade shack) when the sun was too hot or when the rain was too strong. I spent my days enchanted with gongs and metalphones of different shapes and sizes. I spent my evenings in private classes with master teachers as well as sitting to the sound of frogs and unidentified insects. I listened to their calls as a seemingly never-ending gending (melody in Javanese).

My studio was very simple. In one room of my house I painted the walls red in the south, black in the north, yellow in the west, white in the east, and in the center was a rainbow carpet honoring the padma bhuwana (lotus flower mandala). I had many different instruments that I was trying to learn. I would obsess over them. They were anything from a sapeq (multi-stringed wooden instrument) from Borneo, a Javanese gender (vibraphone), a Balinese trompong, sarune (instrument with a double reed) from the Batak in Sumatra, or a suling gambuh (a large bamboo flute).

The villages I lived in were often humble and laid-back places, full of subtle character. I remember one night a man saw me on my porch and came over. He explained that until I moved in, everyone called him Orang Asing (foreigner) because he was from Sumatra and had married a local woman. He figured the two foreigners should be friends. He confessed he did not speak Javanese and we both took a comfort in being the only two people speaking Indonesian with each other in the village.

Nicola Anthony: Could you tell us where the original concept for the Gamelatron Jalan Jiwo came from – did the idea come together gradually or as a sudden inspiration?

Taylor Kuffner: The Gamelatron Jalan Jiwo installation is part of a series of artworks I am creating under the umbrella of “The Gamelatron Project”, which features handcrafted kinetic sculptures that play Indonesian gamelan instruments as site-specific installations.

The inspiration has taken years to manifest. I was a student at the Institut Seni Indonesia di Yogyakarta studying gamelan from 2004 to 2006. Upon returning to the United States in 2008 I received an artist-in-residency with the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots in Brooklyn to compose music for robots that played percussive instruments. We adapted the mechanisms for xylophone robots to play Balinese vibraphones I brought back with me from Indonesia. L.E.M.U.R.’s director, Eric Singer, and I embarked on a collaboration to retrofit my gamelan instruments with custom robots. The result was the Beta version of the Gamelatron that debuted in September of 2008.

Since then I have built seven more Gamelatrons of various sizes, tunings, and cultural traditions. Throughout the last five years, with thousands of hours of presentations in settings ranging from museums, galleries, and art fairs to outdoor music festivals, public spaces, and healing arts studios, I have gained insight into the different ways this project can serve diverse communities. Each time I present new work or old work in new contexts, I find new inspirations and permutations for the project. The project itself is a feedback loop that is constantly inspiring me and informing me about its next incarnations.

Nicola Anthony: It is exciting to see artwork in the show that delves into roots and traditions, and also combines this with new technology. In Singapore we exist in a very contemporary society, filled with shiny gadgets and pushing forward at a fast pace – it can be a welcome contrast to be reminded of home and beginnings.

Sundaram Tagore: Yes, we are not interested in the idea of surface. Unless you have a composite culture or a depth, it doesn’t hold the attention – of course we are all attracted to surface when we go to a club or thinking about celebrities for example, I’m not negating that, but it cannot be enduring. Enduring is when you have a kindred spirit, and have a conversation with something – then it’s a transformation. When you look at a great work of art – for example the first time I saw Night Watch by Rembrandt I had shivers – it transports you to another level. That’s when you realise that this is a great work of art – if there is a level of divinity to take you to another plane, as art is supposed to do.

The art idea is to galvanise that – so through this gallery we bring together the right kind of audience, and the right artworks, and create that alchemy that happens when all the ingredients are put together right.

Nicola Anthony: Taylor your description of Indonesia conjures up some wonderful images and feelings of your home there. The exhibition is based on this concept of Home, and the ties of tradition versus the newness of contemporary life. What was it that convinced you make a life change to move your own home to Indonesia—was it the art that took you there?

Taylor Kuffner: Believe it or not, I went to Indonesia on an open-ended vacation with no intention of making it my home. I think the gongs and the musical tradition in general had a different plan for me. The more I learned and the more I heard and played, the longer I wanted to stay and dive deeper. I think it took about a year before I realized Indonesia was “home” and remained my home for several years, although my residency is now back in Brooklyn as I type this on a break from installing a commission in Bali.

Nicola Anthony: Did you start to miss your own traditions or contemporary life?

Taylor Kuffner: One of the odd things for me was the standpoint of the people in the villages in which I lived. It seemed that Indonesia could never really be my home or the place where I pulang kampung (“return to your family’s village/home”). I am an American; from a country proud of its melting pot. I am a New Yorker; from a city with a long tradition of embracing immigrants from all over the world for hundreds of years. For me, I usually associate people with Asian features with Elmhurst, Queens, and think of them just as much a native New Yorker as I am. Yet I realized no matter how long I stayed or how deeply I assimilated in Indonesia, I would always be an outsider. This of course seems logical, but somewhere inside of me I was accustomed to living in a multi-ethnic society that retained its individuality while still associating myself as a “New Yorker.” It was always hard for me knowing that I would always be an Orang Asing (foreigner) before anything else.

I did miss New York and my family. Whenever you allow yourself to see the world from a different point of view or against a different backdrop you come to realize a great number of things not only about where you are but also about where you come from. This is essentially the biggest value of travel, learning to appreciate where you come from while gaining a wider understanding about how we all are more similar than we are different.

Nicola Anthony: Sundaram Tagore gallery shows artists from around the world. I’m conscious that in the East there is a shorter, faster paced and more compressed time scale between modernity and tradition, whereas in the west it’s more stretched out – tradition is further in the past. In terms of how artists tackle tradition and modernity, is there a difference existing between your artists from East and West?

Sundaram Tagore: In terms of art history, the art gallery and museum system, the West have had a longer development process. The first museum that existed, Ashmolean at Oxford University, was built in the 1700’s. But for East, there is a catch up game without the same kind of timeframe, they have a vertical learning curve – so everything is in flux, as people are trying to put it together very quickly.

Secondly, in a culture like Asia, it all comes from great tradition – thousands of years of it. So how can you reject that tradition? However, you also realise that not everything of tradition is valuable, some can be a real hindrance. For example the treatment of women – in traditional culture generally women are suppressed, so we have to get rid of that. We have to selectively appropriate things that make sense, because the postmodern age allows us to do that. This is what the artists are looking at.

The Western concern is completely different, unless they have already experienced a lifestyle here in the East. Most of the artists I am dealing with have already lived in some part of Asia, like Taylor who has spent 5 years in Indonesia and is very closely connected, and has now become the ambassador to that culture. He has a kind of voice and power to draw people that someone localised in Bali may not have. He has become an ambassador of that culture.

Nicola Anthony: That’s impressive. As a Orang Asing (foreigner), how do you think Taylor become an ambassador of the culture?

Sundaram Tagore: Well look at the number of people he has got interested in this kind of tradition – Taylor has a kind of voice and power to draw people that someone localised in Bali – say in a localised temple, even though it may be really beautiful and haunting – may not have. And suddenly, other people across the globe are realising, “this is us”. It is valuable for an artist to preserve it.

Nicola Anthony: It is a fantastic mission for an artist then – to help the preservation and recognition of these beautiful traditions, and have the ability to connect it with other cultures and lives too.

There is something moving and very touching about music, even more than pure sound. It gives this sonic work the ability to connect, even with those who may find it difficult to feel connection or understanding of a painting, for example. Taylor, have you explored this effect or come to understand why it occurs? What do you hope the effect of experiencing your sonic sculptures will be on your audiences?

Taylor Kuffner: Thank you. It is an honor to have played a part in touching someone. There are many answers to this question. I like to think that in some ways the absence of a person playing the music allows the observer to partake deeper in the phenomenon of the tone. I think that sometimes when watching a musician we become enthralled with their skill and musicality and might perceive the music differently, whereas with the Gamelatron it really opens the door for the sound to stand on its own.

I think the reason why people can easily connect to it is multifaceted. Sound is a vibration that has a quantifiable effect on the body. There are old texts in Bali written on palm leaves (see Prakempa, sebuah lontar) that imply the tones of the gamelan instruments are linked to the creation of the universe and are made specifically to impact different parts of the body, such as the chakras. I personally think sound is a primal expression. The fact that it is ephemeral in nature forces us to perceive it on a more intuitive level. I also think the visual art world can be intimidating. Meanings are often codified and we don’t ask ourselves enough “how does this work of art make us feel?”. I try to create fine art that one cannot help but feel. From what I have seen, people feel it and react in so many different ways, ranging from exuberance and joy to calmness and contemplation. I do not try and control a single emotional outcome from my work. Rather, I attempt to create the space to allow each person to interpret it for themselves.

Nicola Anthony: The way you have installed the sculpture in the gallery is obviously very important—allowing the sound to originate from different directions, and complement the robotics that coordinate the timing of the bells. Did it take you long to plan this out and install?

Taylor Kuffner: The layout of the installation is always extremely important. I see this artwork as a real duet with the physical space. I walked around the gallery with gongs in my hand listening for hours to the way the sound traveled through the space before deciding which gongs should go where and how to synergize with the other artwork so that we are complementing each other. The install itself takes time and patience. I often cannot make any solid plans without being in the actual space. Usually I can only get a sense of how many instruments would be appropriate, design some mouthing options and create aesthetic outlines, but the actual design always happens on-site during the install. I write new compositions for every installation. The compositions themselves are very dependent on where the different tones emanate from as well as the intentions of the show and the mixed uses of the space.

Sundaram Tagore
Sundaram Tagore, with artwork by Taylor Kuffner

Nicola Anthony: Having the art outside the gallery is real genius. We hear with excitement that you may install Gamelatron Jalan Jiwo on our MRT—will plans of this go ahead?

Taylor Kuffner: Thank Sundaram for the art outside—it was his idea—I just saw it as a wonderful challenge and a great opportunity. It really attracts people and sets a tone of curiosity and enthusiasm for gallery-goers.

As for the MRT, your guess is as good as mine. I do like the idea of being a part of people’s regular lives. There has been substantial interest in both public and private sectors about the project. I hope this installation as well as others will find a good home in Singapore.

Nicola Anthony: Well, here at Artitute we really hope to see your artworks on the MRT soon, it would make a wonderful artistic and sonic intersection in our day to day lives – even for those who are not able to get to a gallery very often.

Taylor Kuffner and Sundaram Tagore, thank you for your time. This has been a fascinating glimpse into the artwork and how it came about. It seems at once personal and universal, and I hope all my readers will drop by to experience the exhibition before it ends.

Catch ‘Home’ including the Gamelatron Jalan Jiwo installation at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Gillman Barracks, until March 10th 2013

Check out the first article in this series: Behind the scenes with Sundaram Tagore: The sound of ‘Home’.


texts by Nicola Anthony

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